A SOUND-EFFECTS EDITOR for a motion picture begins his work by viewing a scene in which people are moving about on the screen, interacting with each other and with objects and structures in their environment. And usually the sounds of their footsteps, their opening and closing of doors, their pouring and drinking of liquids, as well as the roar of their engines, the squealing of their tires, and the blasts of their guns, have been recorded along with the picture. For a movie in which all the sound has been recorded synchronously with the picture, it would seem that the sound-effects editor would have little to do. But nothing could be farther from actual practice, for in contemporary motion pictures, most, if not all, of the incidental sounds are replaced or enhanced. This poses a major problem for our understanding of motion-picture realism, for it would seem self-evident that the sounds of the action recorded at the time of the action are the most realistic possible and that any replacement or enhancement could only result in less realism.
We recall editing a scene in which the protagonist is trapped in a blind alley and eludes his pursuers by climbing a fire escape up the side of a building to the rooftop. In actuality the steel stairway was very rigid and secured firmly to the building. The sounds made by the steel structure as his feet rapidly ascended the steps made it seem solid and safe. We listened to these sounds recorded at the same time as the picture and judged that they would have to be replaced. (This, by the way, is the judgment rendered by almost every sound-effects editor with regard to almost every production-track effect.) But why did we want to change the sounds? Why did they feel wrong? They were the sounds actually made by the climbing of the fire escape. Do they not qualify as realistic?
The sounds that we heard accompanying the actor climbing the fire escape were indeed realistic. They accurately conveyed the information that the actor was climbing a well-constructed and well-maintained metal stairway and that he was in no danger. In fact, the scene had been rehearsed several times, and the actor with camera and sound crews in tow had each time made the ascent quite safely. But our job was to construct a fictional scene in which the character was in great jeopardy and the outcome of his effort to escape tinged with uncertainty. What was needed was a fire escape that sounded creaky, loosely attached to the supporting building, and dangerous to climb. We obtained some loosely fabricated pieces of metal and by trampling upon them achieved sounds that seemed much better.
The foleyed sounds were in fact much better because they were more realistic, not for the profilmic event but for the fictional event. With the new sounds, the scene was no longer of an actor climbing a safe set of stairs but of the character fleeing for his life up a flight of open metal steps so precariously attached to the side of an old building that the outcome of his attempt was in grave doubt. These sounds were entirely appropriate and ultimately realistic for the fictional world of the movie. The insight to be gained is